To the many mysteries surrounding Saddam Hussein's tyrannical rule over Iraq—Where are the weapons? Why the voracious appetite for brutality? How could anyone remain loyal to so poisonous a regime?—we must now add one more: Who put a 1984 Oregon license plate in Saddam's garage?
The license plate in question (2Z-351, registration number 4137755) was found lying on the floor of what is actually one of several garages for the main presidential palace in downtown Baghdad, where the Coalition Provisional Authority is now housed. It was caked with dust and lying amid a pile of 70-odd Iraqi license plates beside a Cadillac, a Mercedes, and a few other vehicles that apparently belonged either to Saddam or to one of his sons. "It's assumed that it came from a car stolen in the U.S. and shipped somehow to Iraq," an Army source informed Chatterbox by e-mail. "But no one knows this, it's just speculation."
Relations between the United States and Iraq were relatively friendly in 1984, when the plate was issued. This was halfway into the Iran-Iraq war, a conflict about which the United States was officially neutral but quietly tilted toward Iraq, providing it military intelligence, trade assistance, and some helicopters. The now-famous pictures of special presidential envoy Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam were taken in 1983. Rumsfeld returned in March 1984 for further negotiations, and formal relations between the two countries were restored the following November. (For this information, Chatterbox is indebted to an electronic briefing book prepared by Joyce Battle of the National Security Archive.) Although the United States expressed some displeasure at Iraq's use of chemical weapons—the massacre of Kurds at Halabja occurred in 1988—the two countries remained mutually wary but essentially friendly until 1990, when Saddam invaded Kuwait.
It's entirely possible, then, that some American lawfully drove a car with Oregon plates into Iraq. Even in the mid-1980s, however, Baghdad wouldn't have been most people's idea of a tourist spot.
Is the license plate genuine? Chatterbox ran the number by Oregon's Department of Motor Vehicles and was told that no such plate appears in its records. It's possible that it slipped between the cracks when the 1984 records were transferred from paper to a computer, but the greater likelihood is that the license plate is a counterfeit. How Saddam or his sons would have acquired a counterfeit American license plate, however, is no less a mystery than how they would have acquired a genuine one.